Comfortably the most compact city I’ve ever visited; at 600m by 1km, Valletta is Europe’s smallest capital. Although tiny, it still manages to pack a lot into its old centre. With its domed skyline and the golden hue of the sloping streets giving Valletta the appearance of an ersatz Jerusalem, it was founded in the 16th-century by the Knights Hospitaller and the narrow alleys with their characterful “Maltese” balconies and elegant palazzi still retain a baroque charm. Coupled with its natural beauty and balmy climate, it makes for an intriguing weekend break.
It doesn’t take too long to exhaust the sights in the city though; it really is that small. After exploring the historic St John’s Co-Cathedral, the Fort of St. Angelo and the other sights that this UNESCO world heritage site has to offer, you can be left wanting for things to do. If you venture down the side-streets a little, however, there are some dynamic additions to the cultural and nightlife landscape to discover, proving Valletta to be more than just the sum of its historic sites. It’s a city for the here and now too.
The following are my top 5 things to do in this historic city that are rooted in the present:
1) Lot Sixty One Coffee Roasters
For a city with a lack of dedicated coffee spots, Lot Sixty One is more akin to the artisanal coffee roasters you’d find in London or Berlin. They hand-roast fair trade coffee daily at nearby Naxxar and it shows in the flavour. There’s a wide variety of coffees available with ubiquitous cortados and flat whites making an appearance alongside the classic lattes and Americanos. There’s a selection of sweet treats available and sparse seating inside. It’s refreshingly self-aware too, selling “hipster” pins at the till. There are more seats available outside on the steep Old Theatre Street. It’s quite an experience drinking a cappuccino at a 45 degree angle!
2) Is-Suq-Tal-Belt Food Hall
The renovated and repurposed Is-Suq-tal-Belt street market is now a food hall and features cuisines from around the world, with Turkish kebabs and tapas via Maltese pastizzi and pizza available. There’s a supermarket downstairs, ideal for self-caterers and upstairs, there’s a wealth of stalls selling handmade products like handbags, blankets, art, and craft products. It’s open until 10pm seven-days-a-week and is a handy option for when many of the city’s eateries are closed on Sundays.
3) Parliament Building
The absolute closest (and only) thing to modern architecture that Valletta has, Renzo Piano’s (architect of London’s ‘Shard’) rebuilt parliament building, made from a similar golden coloured stone as the rest of the city, still strangely fits in with the older buildings surrounding it. Machine cut, the two cubed shaped buildings appear to levitate in mid-air, although they are actually on support stilts. You can’t go inside but, located near his redesigned city gates; it’s a modern welcome to this historic city.
4) The Cinema Bar by Citylights
This pop-up cinema may be the most fun you can have in Valletta for €5. This grants you admission, a free drink (including alcohol) and a bag of popcorn. I caught a 6pm showing of E.T and the ambience was great: 80’s music played before the film started and the walls are covered with iconic movie posters and empty film rolls. The video and audio is never going to be an IMAX botherer but that isn’t the point, it is like sitting in a friend’s front room. Incredibly charming and highly recommended.
5) Yard 32 Gin Bar
With almost 250 variations of gin and 40 types of tonic water, this little hole-in-the-wall is the place to go in Valletta if you’re partial to “mothers ruin”. It serves a selection of tapas and there’s a small cocktail menu with their own riffs on some of the classics; both the Gimlets and John Collins were made differently to anything I’ve ever had before. It stays open late and it has live music three-nights-a-week. Coupled with friendly owners, in a city with few nightlife options, this place is, quite simply, a must visit.
I hope you enjoy my recommendations and if you check them out, please drop a comment and let me know how you found them. Alternatively, if you feel I’ve made a glaring omission, send me a message and I’ll look at including them in an update.
Thanks for reading,